Every so often the world’s content creators and SEO specialists become suddenly impassioned by what’s known as a ‘core algorithm update’. These happen a few times a year and can have a significant effect on a web page’s Google rankings. But what is a core algorithm update? And more importantly – is it really something you should care about?
Algorithms, updates and rankings
An algorithm update means Google has made a significant tweak to the way they determine search engine result rankings. Admittedly, these can be quite small. But for the world’s biggest search engine, small changes can make a big difference to people who rely on their search engine results pages (SERPs) to generate leads.
Google algorithm updates happen all the time. In fact, even referring to ‘the Google algorithm’ in the singular it a bit disingenuous – the truth is it’s a complicated web of loosely related algorithms which has been in a near constant state of flux since Google first got going. Keeping track of all that is a fairly tall order, because updates happen virtually every day. Luckily for SEO professionals, most of these are relatively minor and no cause for alarm.
OK, so what’s a core algorithm update?
Core updates aren’t just your run-of-the-mill minor adjustments. As the name would suggest, this is a change to the fundamental algorithm that powers the Google search engine. It’s easy to see why these updates happen – if you’re in charge of the world’s most popular search engine, you’re going to want to make sure it responds to changes in how people write, post and read content over time. So far, so understandable.
The problem is, algorithm updates are a bit like dropping a large fishing net into the middle of an ocean – there’s no clear cut line between the content you want to catch and the stuff you’d rather leave where it is.
That means whenever one of these core algorithms turns up, several well–meaning bystanders tend to get caught in the net. Virtually every core algorithm update comes complete with horror stories of businesses whose rankings change dramatically overnight. It’s also why these updates tend to make SEO folks pretty stressed.
But how can we tell when a core algorithm update has happened – or even better, when it’s on the way?
How to spot a wild core algorithm update
Unlike the smaller everyday updates, core algorithm updates tend to get a lot of attention. Sometimes Google announces them in advance, sometimes they announce it on the day (generally via Twitter), and sometimes they keep it to themselves. The bigger the bombshell, the bigger the publicity and the bigger the splash it’ll make throughout the SEO world.
If you want to find out what’s changing, it’s helpful to follow the Google Search Liaison account on Twitter, as well as paying attention to blogs like Hubspot and SearchMetrics – (and, of course, Fifty Five and Five…) who are generally pretty quick to spot these changes.
Sometimes, Google will publish guidance on who these changes are likely to effect and what the ramifications are likely to be. Other times, they prefer to keep tight lipped and see if anyone notices. Their search engine, their rules. Naturally, this makes it pretty difficult to keep up of what changes are coming and when.
The only definite way to limit the damage of such changes is through regular and thorough SEO auditing. That way, if there’s a big change to the SEO rankings of your content you can quickly see what’s affected, identify the trends and take positive steps to mitigate any damage. But as well as this, the type of content you create makes a huge difference.
What pandas can teach us about SEO
About a decade ago, Google decided that they’d had enough of ‘content farms’. Such website were filled with realms of low value, keyword-stuffed content that made it onto page one of the search results through black hat SEO trickery – without providing much value to their readers. Google described such content as being “as close as possible to being spam, without actually being spam”. An update was clearly in order.
The idea behind the update, known as Panda, was to make search results better match the intent of their users. But what does that mean in practice? And what can we learn from that almost a decade later?
Well, imagine you want to find out more about a topic such as, for example, Google core algorithm updates, and type “What is a core algorithm update?” into the search engine. Which of the two following articles would you say best matches your search intent?
- A detailed breakdown of the context and background to Google core algorithm updates, as well as an explanation as to what it means to you.
- An article with virtually no relevant information, which just happens to have the words “what is a core algorithm update” strategically placed all over the page to game the SEO rankings.
Well I hope it’s the first one, anyway.
The point is, the low–value, keyword–stuffed content might have been successful at gaining a temporary SEO boost, but it wasn’t really what readers were looking when they typed in the search term. Eventually, the rules were always going to catch up.
Content that stands the test of time
This game of cat and mouse has been going on since the earliest days of search – and isn’t likely to change any time soon. As long as search engines exist, there will always be people looking to game the system. But content that seeks to fulfill the user’s search intent has consistently managed to stay on the right side of the fishing net, for the clear and obvious reason that it’s precisely the kind of content that Google is trying to promote.
If you’re writing content that’s genuinely valuable and satisfies the search intent of the people reading it, it’s highly likely you’ll be able to handle whatever spanners the gods of search throw in the works. So, if you want to avoid getting caught out by the latest core update, the one helpful piece of advice is the only thing you can rely on Google to tell you every time an update happens: Write good content.